Home Sweet HomeBy: April Smith
For my teachers Tillie Olsen and Richard “Coach” Scowcroft
The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify—it was like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs and the blue drifts, then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: “This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth.”
—WILLA CATHER, My Ántonia
MERCY MEDICAL CENTER
DECEMBER 26, 1985
Rapid City, South Dakota, is a small municipality on the western edge of the state. Originally settled by a band of disillusioned gold miners, a sense of melancholy disappointment still prevails. Despite generations of civic promoters, commerce has never taken hold along its restored frontier streets. December, especially, does not come easily here. In the winter months, temperatures can hang below zero, in the teens if you’re lucky, and continuous storms bring gale-force winds, keeping up a moan of desolation that is peculiar to this place, as if speaking the unspeakable when human voices fail.
On Christmas Eve day, 1985, there had been snow on the ground but the sky was clear. During the night the weather changed. Heavy rain began to fall around the same time the police switchboard became flooded with 911 calls. For two more days the skies stayed blustery, then the rain turned to sleet, which pelted the windshield of Jo Kusek’s rental car as she made her way from the airport. Twenty years ago she’d left South Dakota, vowing never to return. As if in retribution, the prairie was drawing her back, this time in the face of a horrific event.
The windshield wipers swept the sludge away in crescents. Jo watched as the familiar road became muddled, then sharp, then obscured again by a layer of ice. And that’s how it would be for the days ahead, as she tried to grasp what had happened to her family. The whole town was in shock. Her sister-in-law, Wendy Kusek, had been bludgeoned to death with her own steam iron by an intruder on the night of December 24. Jo’s brother, Lance, and their son, Willie, had been savagely attacked as well and were barely clinging to life.
The Kuseks lived on West Boulevard, a genteel enclave of the city’s most affluent. Around seven p.m., one of them had opened the front door of their saltbox house painted a jaunty blue, assuming it was an early visitor for the annual holiday dinner. The dining room table was decorated with fine china and fresh pine boughs, and a good-sized fire was still blazing in the hearth when police arrived some fifty minutes later, summoned by panicked guests. Locked out, with no answer at the door, they’d gone around to the windows and seen the Kuseks lying motionless on the floor in what looked like a massacre.
The community hospital that Jo remembered as a small brick building with an ivy-covered portico had become a lumbering medical center. She parked in a cavernous underground lot. Hatless in the frigid air, too distressed to even zip her parka, she followed the arrows to the fourth-floor surgical wing, where she was directed by a solemn nurse to a characterless brown-and-green waiting room.
Murmuring sympathies, a small crowd of people she had known all her life rose to greet her. Cattlemen and ranch wives. The garage owner. Her father’s political supporters and the Democratic state chairman. Jo saw fear in their shell-shocked eyes, and not just of the killer or killers, who were still at large. Everyone there had been close to her family, and now they were wrestling with their own guilty consciences. What had been their part in the events leading up to this incomprehensible act?
Newspaper and TV reporters were being kept in a separate room. The turnout was familiar to people who knew the Kuseks’ story. The national press had swarmed Rapid City before, during her parents’ trial. Once again the family made sensational news. Then they’d been fighting for freedom. Now, one by one, they were fighting for their lives.
State Trooper Randy Sturgis, retired, was the first to get to Jo. They hugged wordlessly. He’d also been first to befriend the Kuseks when they drove out from New York City, a young family in a secondhand station wagon, back in 1950. Thirty-five years later, he was the same lanky beanpole, but his hair had turned all white and she could feel a tremor as his hands gripped hers.